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on September 30, 2009
_The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul_ (2007) by researchers Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary provides a fascinating glimpse into the murky realm where science and mysticism meet by taking a deep look into current research in neuroscience. The authors offer an important understanding of the brain processes behind religious, mystical, and spiritual experiences in light of current research. In particular, the brain imaging done on Carmelite nuns at the University of Montreal provides for a fascinating study. The authors take account of much of this research arguing the case against a reductionist materialism and maintaining that the mind is non-material. The authors examine studies both in neuroscience and parapsychology which they believe offer evidence for their case. Such evidence cannot easily be dismissed by the materialist. The authors maintain that such studies do not prove the existence of God necessarily but do show that a mystical state of consciousness exists. Further, they argue against some of the interpretations of such studies and some of the theories to explain them.

The authors consider such issues as:

A Spiritual Neuroscience - arguing the case against the held assumption that evolution is a mindless series of events with no meaning, and instead maintaining that will, mind, self, and soul exist independently. The authors further maintain that man has a fundamental spiritual essence. The authors show the problems for evolutionary psychology as science arguing that the theory cannot be falsified. The authors consider the animal nature of man as well as such issues of artificial intelligence (showing how computer programs can beat the greatest grand masters at chess, but also showing how Kasparov came back to beat a more advanced computer program). The authors provide evidence against scientific materialism showing that it is lacking in explanatory power by considering such issues as for example the fact that the brain can change. Finally, the authors note the great evils that can be done in the name of religion (e.g. the cult of Jim Jones), but also the great good (e.g. the work of Mother Theresa).

Is There a God Program? - the idea that spirituality must be looked at as part of the brain, and in particular the theory that there is a particular circuit of the brain responsible for spirituality. The authors consider such theories as the idea of the "God part" of brain (but showing how this theory ends up begging several important questions), as well as the idea that belief in God is encoded into our genes (but mentioning several problems with this theory).

Does a God Module Even Exist? - considering the notion of a "God module" in the brain by examining such issues as mystical experiences amongst epileptics and those suffering from temporal-lobe epilepsy. The authors examine the evidence for TLE among various mystics and saints. The authors consider such issues as a "God switch" activated by the epileptic seizure as well as the possibility of deciding such issues through experiment mentioning the work of Ramachandran.

The Strange Case of the God Helmet - the authors consider the "God helmet" invented by Michael Persinger that supposedly induces RSMEs and OBEs. However, the authors show that much of the problem with this invention is that it can be explained more parsimoniously through the concept of suggestibility, despite its enormous popularity.

Are Mind and Brain Identical? - the authors consider the issue of mind/brain, examining such important concepts as the nature of consciousness, "qualia", the role of the self, free will, and the materialist explanation for consciousness. The authors consider possible answers for this question including: epiphenomenalism, eliminative materialism, psychophysical identity theory, mentalism, substance dualism, and dualistic interactionism. The authors seem to promote a dualistic interactionism of sorts as advocated by neuroscientist and Catholic philosopher John Eccles.

Toward a Nonmaterialist Science of Mind - the authors consider evidence for a nonmaterialist understanding of the nature of mind. In particular, the authors examine such issues as the treatment of OCD in which feedback between mind and brain seems to indicate a distinction between the two, the possibility of responsible choices, learning to live without fear, and the idea that "believing can make it so". In particular, the authors consider two important effects - the placebo effect (meaning "I will please", in which belief seems to influence the results in a positive way) and the nocebo effect (meaning "I will harm", in which belief influences the results in a harmful way).The authors explain how they believe the occurrence of these effects offers evidence for the distinction between mind and brain - in that they cannot be explained otherwise. The authors also consider issues from parapsychology that cannot be easily explained away by materialistic science. Such issues include the study of near-death experiences (NDEs) and research into psi (which appears as a consistent laboratory effect). The authors argue that such issues as psi demonstrate the future direction of science in the same manner as similar unexplained effects led to the creation of quantum theory.

Who Has Mystical Experiences and What Triggers Them? - the authors considers the concepts and study of mysticism and RSMEs. The authors explain the presence of RSMEs and their occurrence among certain populations. The authors show how data on RSMEs has been collected mentioning the work of Hardy. The authors also offer up certain theories concerning RSMEs including those from evolutionary psychology (which they find ultimately problematic and actually unscientific), the idea of "selfish genes", and the role of "memes".

Do Religious, Spiritual, or Mystical Experiences Change Lives? - the authors argue that indeed there is a connection between belief and health. The authors also examine alleged studies to show the inefficacy of prayer, but argue that such studies are fundamentally flawed in that they claim to manipulate God within the laboratory.The authors also consider the role of religion and violence considering the issue of "fundamentalism".

The Carmelite Studies- the authors explain their research on the mystical experiences of Carmelite nuns, showing brain imaging techniques, and offer the conclusion that while science cannot prove the existence of God it can rule out other materialist explanations.

Did God Create the Brain or Does the Brain Create God? - the authors propose this question and seek to explain it in terms of a new neuroscience. The authors argue that despite much hostility to this new approach from materialists that in fact this science offers a great deal towards our understanding of the brain and spirituality.

This book offers a fascinating synthesis of the latest developments in neuroscience research and spirituality, mysticism, and religion. The authors offer much material to challenge the reigning materialistic viewpoint of the scientific establishment. Certainly despite one's particular worldview, one has much to consider after reading this book.
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on September 5, 2007
A rash of best selling books that attempt to use science to prove that materialism, such as Richard Dawkins' new book, have appeared on the market in the past few years. The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul was written by a well qualified PhD level neuroscientist at the University of Montreal who attempts by use of laboratory experimental research to evaluate the claims of the nonmaterialist account of the living world. The coauthor is a journalist, insuring that the book is readable and assessable to the general public. The team was very successful in this work, to say the least. This book is a welcome response, based on scientific research, to the claims of materialists, the theory that life and the universe contains only matter and motion and nothing more. The idea commonly espoused by materialists that no soul, no mind, and no free will exists is effectively challenged by the peer reviewed empirical research reviewed in this book. The authors document that the nonmaterialists approach to the human mind has a long and fruitful tradition and much evidence behind it even today. The authors conclude that this worldview accounts for the evidence much better than the relatively new, and currently largely stagnate, materialist worldview. The materialist tradition not only attempts to explain everything by appealing to the motion of matter only, but has now moved far beyond this, discouraging researchers from even considering the possibility that matter and the four forces explains everything, and thereby limiting research by their straight jacket which stifles science. Science must research every area that may be fruitful, as well as some areas that may not at first appear fruitful. A major conclusion of the materialists argument is that humans have no free will but, if one could understand the position and movement of the brain molecules, one could always predict the behavior of the person. Cornell professor William Provine has articulated this position very well, as has many of his students. As Oxford University Professor Richard Dawkins explains, free will is just an illusion created by the electrical charges in the neurons in our brains, nothing more. These and other highly respected scientists even question the wisdom of punishing criminals because, if there is no mind and no free will, then criminals are victims of their mechanical material brain. Does the evidence support this view? Read this book and judge for yourself. No matter which view you hold you need to at least be aware of the other side. It was my conclusion that most readers will agree that materialist blinders interfere with the freedom to follow the evidence no matter where it leads.
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on February 18, 2009
Few books stimulate so many diverse and passionate reviews as "The Spiritual Brain." I award five stars as a layperson not so much because of the scientific and philosophical arguments of the authors, but because they have dared to transcend the logic-tight barriers between the disciplines of science, religion and philosophy. They have opened doors for science that few materialistic scientists care to recognize. The stakes are very high in this discussion, as we shall see. For this is nothing less than a discussion of the nature of a human being ... is he or she simply a more evolved type of animal, or different in kind, far more than a complicated evolutionary accident? The answer to this question is critical to the course of civilization. The primary issue is whether this question can be adequately addressed by a strictly materialistic science. Many great scientific minds had their doubts.

Late in his career, Abraham Maslow, the great psychologist and founder of the "third force" movement in psychology, dared to do much the same thing as authors Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary. When Dr. Maslow's book "The Psychology of Science" ventured to critique materialistic science for being too narrow in its focus, the attacks by the scientific establishment were bitter and relentless. Arthur G. Wirth, a prominent member of The John Dewey Society, mused in the Introduction to "The Psychology of Science," a predictive question: "Why would a man hurl his lance against the citadel and risks the rocks and hot oil he may expect in return?" Yet Maslow's complaint was simply that the adherents of the mechanomorphic tradition of the physical sciences were not necessarily wrong, but rather too narrow to serve as a general philosophical platform for science. Dr. Maslow was a well-trained Freudian and behaviorist. He said when he began to study the higher reaches of human nature, his training failed him. He believed that peak experiences were authentic, natural events and worthy of study. What Maslow declared were his "most important findings," the reality of metavalues (the classic triad of truth, beauty and goodness) and their power to influence and perhaps even configure human personalities, especially self-actualizing personalities. These findings were brushed aside by the broader establishment and are in danger of being lost. Yet these issues have never been resolved, and "The Spiritual Brain" helps remind us that more research and discourse are in order.

Many great minds hold that peak experiences and metavalues are not mystic fluff as some would have us believe. Abraham Maslow was a pragmatic scientist and a professed atheist. Much as William James, he believed that values and spiritual experiences should not be the exclusive domain of religionists. He advocated a science of values. He also grasped that the metavalues of truth, beauty and goodness transcend the disciplines of science, theology, and philosophy. Maslow understood that science does not have all the answers. Science can tell us much about material reality, or what is. Science can even suggest possibilities, what could be. But the poet or the religionist offers a vision for us of what ought to be. And science without values builds bigger bombs and more efficient gas chambers. Dr. Maslow fought hard to break down the barriers between the disciplines of science and religion. He wrote:

"I [have] pointed out that both orthodox science and orthodox religion have been institutionalized and frozen into a mutually excluding dichotomy. This separation into Aristotelian a and not-a has been almost perfect ... Every question, every answer, every method, every jurisdiction, every task has been assigned to either one or the other, with practically no overlaps. One consequence is that they are both pathologized, split into sickness, ripped apart into a crippled half-science and a crippled half-religion."

Philosopher Mortimer Adler also lamented the rigid divisions between the three great disciplines that lay claim to truth: science, religion and philosophy. (See his autobiography, "A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror," for the story of his struggle about this issue with crystallized academicians and his pivotal speech: "God and the Professors.") Why is this Aristotelian division between the great disciplines important? Because, though Aristotle's divisions worked well for 20 centuries, the strict paths they followed are running out of ideas in the modern world, and material science is the best example. One of the great founders of quantum mechanics, Werner Heisenberg saw this clearly. In his book, "Beyond the Frontiers," he flatly stated that quantum science had vindicated Plato, who held that concepts like truth, beauty and goodness are realities that transcend the material. Over the years the common wisdom developed that a Platonic notion was unreal, only nebulous froth. However, the legendary quantum scientist and framer of the uncertainty principle, Heisenberg, supports the concept that philosophy's classic values of truth, beauty and goodness, are realities--active agents that transcend the material.

But what of the spiritual experience? The authors of "The Spiritual Brain," Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary point out that Maslow referred to the ultimate human state of consciousness as the Peak Experience. His research revealed that most people, whether they were Actualizers or not, achieved a peak experience state for brief periods. Materialistic neuroscientists claim this is an illusion. Laypersons must decide for themselves. But we are not helpless before the a priori assumptions of scientists, religionists, and philosophers. We have personal experiences that either validate one point of view or the other. Most of us have had peak experiences, and for my part, I am certain they were real. Modern psychologist and noted author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the peak experience Flow, the ultimate state of happiness. Maslow's concept of self-actualization could be likened to achieving flow more often, to living at a higher level of self-forgetfulness, creativity, and service.

Why are these issues so important? Viktor Frankl, another Freudian scientist (and survivor of Nazi death camps) explained the importance of perceiving a human being as more than a malleable "meat puppet" (in the words of the authors of "The Spiritual Brain"). In Frankl's classic, "The Doctor and the Soul" he wrote: "When we present man as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, ... we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone. I became acquainted with the last stage of that corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment--or, as the Nazis liked to say, "Blood and Soil." I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers."

The authors of "The Spiritual Brain," Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary, are doing a great service with their book. For the layperson, it is a challenging read. Even so, I found it persuasive and fascinating. Ultimately this discussion is about more than scientific data. It is also the interpretation and meaning of this data that must be resolved. The religionist and the philosopher ask different questions than the scientist. We need the insights of all three in rational debate if we are to determine issues of the magnitude presented in "The Spiritual Brain." And, as I stated earlier, the stakes are high.
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on December 5, 2013
This book purports to be about the soul, but in fact contains almost nothing on the topic. There is a vast literature on the soul in philosophy and theology. These authors, however, seem to be completely unfamiliar with this body of thought.

Is our subjective consciousness an inevitable consequence of information processing in our brains, as the Australian philosopher, David Chalmers, proposes? Or is everything in the universe alive and conscious, as claimed by the nineteenth-century German panpsychists, Schopenhauer and Fechner? Or do we settle for an absolute dualism of mind and matter, the formulation of Descartes, reaching back to Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece? And it information is the basis underlying quantum physics, as many physicists now believe, will information theory clarify our concept of the soul?

Instead of analysing these ideas with insights from neuroscience, these authors are content to highlight the incompleteness of our modern understanding of the brain. Their argument seems to be that, because neuroscience cannot explain everything about consciousness and mental functions, therefore the soul must be the cause of our awareness, our sense of will, of purpose and morality, etc. In theology, at the more mindless end of the spectrum, we often see an analogous argument: whatever science cannot explain is caused by God (the "god-of-the-gaps" idea). In any such framework, the mystical is driven back by each advance in scientific understanding. Surely the futility of this line of argument is self-evident.

These failings of the book are a tremendous pity, because there are interesting questions about our more abstract mental functions and how (or even if) they relate to the brain. But you will not find much enlightenment on such topics in this book.

The small amount of novel data presented is a study of the brains of Carmelite nuns during recall of mystical experiences they achieved during meditation. Recall of mystical experiences, compared with emotionally neutral ones, correlated with changes in activity of particular zones in the brain. Are we supposed to be surprised by this? If anything, it seems to contradict the authors' thesis, rather than supporting it.

It is only in the final chapter that the author confesses. His personal life has been driven by mystical experiences. Notions like "intelligent design" and teleological purpose are his starting point. It is a pity he did not put this in his first chapter. The reader might then not have found the whole exercise so frustrating.
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on January 18, 2012
I approached this book seeking for purported evidence for a non materialistic view of reality: I admit a naturalistic worldview, but my point was "this book claims it will use sound science as the evidence for a different wolrdview, so let's hear their view".
I was in fact very keen to learn about serious tests conducted on "difficult" topics like religious ecstasy, so I approached it with a curious and open mind.
I was therefore very disappointed by the book: not because it drags to a worldview that I do not share (which would be perfectly fine) but because it contains NO science, no evidence, and still makes outrageous conclusions, giving them as "fully proved".
The scheme, reduced to the core, is "we did brain scans of nuns in ecstasy, we did find that something was actually going on in their brain, no explanation was visible for it" ERGO "something supernatural was going on, which PROVES that soul, god etc do exist." That's it...
This is not BAD science, it is just NO science, and in fact no argument at all...
Honestly, I feel that even if I had been an open minded believer I would have found the book as not at all supportive of any supernatural view.
Moreover, although the main editorial claim was about brain scans of nuns having exctasy, you need to read 90% of the book before this subject is even mentioned (all chapters until the last one are in fact just aneddotic reports of "self evident" proofs of existence of souls and god); after you drag yourself across all the chats, the "scientific" chapter about brain scans is even less compelling, lacking any explanation or attempt thereof that should bridge from "something is going on in these brains" (which nobody disputes) to "therefore god exists; QED".
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on August 3, 2015
I read the intro and first chapter, expecting to see a presentation based on science and research. Instead, the authors basically used those pages as an attempt to discredit (bash the so-called “ideology of materialist scientists”. It appeared that the “agenda” of the authors were to advance and justify “intelligent design” -- with lots of promises of “evidence” but precious little readily substantiation. If such is presented later in the book, after the highly prejudicial presentation of the first 48 pages of the book, I’d view it with great skepticism and doubt its accuracy. To say I was disappointed is an understatement. This book lacks credibility from the very start. Too bad, because I am a strong believer in not only the Soul, but in the all-pervasive Presence that underlies all of creation.
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on August 9, 2011
Reading the reviews on this book is as inflammatory as the partisan groups that rail on the subject. Instead of reading a review, read the book. The critics have a point when they rant about the book not being just about neuroscience- it's not. It uses the backdrop of a neuroscientist world to explore the search of existence to the soul. Not the same thing. And to properly attack the subject, the author first carves out the philosophical groundwork for what problem he is tackling, why he is doing so, what the current (in his opinion) errant views are, and how is viewpoint is different. Expecting there to be NO larger questions pursued than just biological ones is a childish assertion in many of these critical reviews. The author moves across a vast array of subjects, probably too numerous for such a short book. I think a 3 or 4 edition series would have been a better tact. This leaves the book open to attacks about detailed support. The truth of the science of the book is clear, and claims to contrary are by people who are only trying to dissuade the basic information from being presented in a correlated fashion by a respected scientist.

Again, the bottom line is this- read the book. Not these reviews.
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on March 3, 2008
Should you happen to pick up "The Spiritual Brain," I suggest you begin by reading the last three pages. There Mario Beauregard describes the experiences and convictions that motivate his book, convictions that are not grounded in neuroscience at all. This passage begins on page 293:

"In this last section of this final chapter, I want to present, very briefly, key elements of a nonmaterialist view of mind, consciousness, self, and RSMEs [religious, spiritual, and mystical experiences]. This personal based not only on the findings of various scientific disciplines (some of which are presented in his book), but also on a series of mystical experiences that I have had since my childhood....

"One of these experiences occurred twenty years ago when I was lying in bed. I was very weak at the time because I was suffering from a particularly severe form of what is now called chronic fatigue syndrome. The experience began with a sensation of heat and tingling in the spine and the chest areas. Suddenly, I merged with the infinitely loving Cosmic Intelligence (or Ultimate Reality) and became united with everything in the cosmos. This unitary state of being, which transcends the subject/object duality, was timeless and accompanied by intense bliss and ecstasy. In this state, I experienced the basic interconnectedness of all things in the cosmos, this infinite ocean of life. I also realized that everything arises from and is part of this cosmic intelligence."

Beauregard concluded, "Individual minds and selves arise from and are linked together by a divine Ground of Being (or primordial matrix). That is the spaceless, timeless, and infinite Spirit, which is the ever-present source of cosmic order, the matrix of the whole universe, including both physis (material nature) and psyche (spiritual nature). Mind and consciousness represent a fundamental and irreducible property of the Ground of Being. Not only does the subjective experience of the phenomenal world exist within mind and consciousness, but mind, consciousness, and self profoundly affect the physical is this fundamental unity and interconnectedness that allows the human mind to causally affect physical reality and permits psi interaction between humans and with physical or biological systems. With regard to this issue, it is interesting to note that quantum physicists increasingly recognize the mental nature of the universe."

In reading "The Spiritual Brain" I made my own discovery: Contact with The Matrix does not, apparently, confer the ability to organize a book-length argument, or even write coherently with any consistency. This is a pretentious, flawed, often self-contradictory, and sometimes downright peculiar work.

Pretensions and Flaws

"The Spiritual Brain" announces its grandiose pretensions in its title: "A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul." We are advised on page 3 that "thousands of books" published in dozens of disciplines that advance naturalistic accounts of human origins and functioning are plain wrong. Daniel Dennett is appointed proxy for these "materialist" views. "This book will show that Professor Dennett and the many neuroscientists who agree with him are mistaken...It will show you why he is mistaken." The peculiarities of this work are quickly evident as well. Although this is to be "A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul," the word "soul" appears just once in the direct (unquoted) text of the book and remains undefined and unaddressed. And while Daniel Dennett is early appointed villain, his work is itself never addressed.

Nevertheless, in asserting the above Beauregard and O'Leary assume some responsibility to at least attempt to approximate the level of scholarship employed by their primary targets. They fail miserably in this respect. Beauregard and O'Leary frequently draw uncritically upon secondary and tertiary sources. Weirdly, although Dennett is early designated proxy for the evils of "materialism," and the text mentions in passing titles such as "The Minds Eye," "Brainchildren: Essays on Designing Minds," "Kinds of Minds," "Freedom Evolves" and "Breaking the Spell," Beauregard and O'Leary never really describe or engage Dennett's work, and only "Kinds of Minds" appears in the bibliography. And, to a degree that quickly becomes maddening, they repeatedly declaim pretentious assertions that are entirely unsupported and uncited. On page 33 we learn, "experiments have shown that, because your brain is a quantum system, if you focus on a given idea, you hold its pattern of connecting neurons in place." Srsly?

Ignorance or omission of other primary literatures is rampant throughout. Astoundingly, while Robert Trivers is cited in passing (on pages 9-10) during a discussion of the origins of altruism, Beauregard and O'Leary fail to mention his classic and seminal work on reciprocal altruism, game theory, and the prisoner's dilemma which he first described in 1971 (The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism. The Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol. 46, No. 1, Mar., 1971, pp. 35-57). Similarly, in an exceptionally weak passage intended to deny the significance of research into the social-cognitive resources of other great apes to an understanding of human cognition (p.17), Beauregard and O'Leary indirectly report, without identification or citation, the work of Brian Hare and others at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology regarding the relative sensitivity of chimpanzees and dogs to human gestures (such as pointing). Worse than relying upon tertiary sources neglecting citations, this passage omits mention of the extensive and often astonishing research findings regarding primate social cognition that this team has reported in recent years (much of which was documented in a recent, quite excellent, broadcast of NOVA earlier this month). In all, the scholarship informing "The Spiritual Brain" is poor, and Beauregard, at least, should know better. One can only conclude, as one meanders across this dismally incomplete landscape, that Beauregard and O'Leary can't be trusted as guides.

Although less important to the thesis presented in this book, irritating stylistic quirks disrupt any semblance of sustained argument. Blocks of quoted material appear on at least half the pages of this book, as though Beauregard and O'Leary can't quite marshall the resources to make arguments for themselves. Oftentimes, such quotes, when supportive of their position, are offered as though a few sympathetic words settle the matter at hand. Sprinkled throughout the text are sidebars with titles such as "The View From Neuroscience" (isn't that what the entire book purports to be?) and "The Mind Brain Problem" (isn't that what the entire book purports to address?) - as well as other topics that beg for integration into the main text. Also rather odd is the voice of the book, which vacillates from that of "this book" to, sometimes startlingly, the first person singular, although we are left to guess which of the two authors is addressing us.


But these are quibbles, and there are bigger problems afoot. Several arguments presented in "The Spiritual Brain" flatly contradict one another. On page 5 we are asked, "If materialism is true, why don't most people believe it?" This is followed by a recitation of statistics regarding the widespread religiosity of Americans. On page 7 Beauregard and O'Leary continue, "By contrast, most humans have never believed in atheism or materialism. Indeed, religion may well have been around as long as humans." All well and good. But on pages 40-41 we find the following passage, which remarks upon a 2005 display at the London Zoo that presented human beings in animal pens. One participant commented, "A lot of people think humans are above other animals. When they see humans as animals, here, it kind of reminds us that we're not that special..." Beauregard and O'Leary remark, "Yes, we are physically members of the animal kingdom and participate in all its risks and opportunities. But the participant's comment...shows how entrenched philosophical materialism has become in our society. Faced with obvious differences between humans and the typical zoo denizens, many assume that they have actually seen similarities." Which is it? When Beauregard and O'Leary wish to deny that "materialism" has ever had attraction for many people, they say that. When they wish to portray "materialism" and atheism as threatening movements within our culture, materialism is "entrenched in our society" and governs our every day experience. I don't see that either author has detected this ridiculous contradiction. Perhaps neither has read the other's contributions to the book.

A more problematic contradiction has bearing upon the centerpiece neuroimaging studies that are presented within this book: that of Carmelite nuns. The object of those studies is "mystical experiences." On page 191 we are told, "Mystical experiences are rare even for mystics. One reason is that the desire for such an experience poses a barrier. As Sister Diane of the Carmelite convent in Montreal explains: 'You can't search for it. The harder your search, the longer you will wait.' Most mystics spend considerable time in prayer and contemplation; these practices reduce mental noise and pave the way for mystical consciousness, although they do not directly produced that consciousness." On page 190 we learn that mystical union is often difficult to attain, an experience that came to be designated the "dark night of the soul" by 16th century Carmelite John of the Cross. On page 200 we learn that Mother Teresa had four mystical experiences in 1946 and 1947 - and never again had such an experience, "which caused her personal sadness."

Against this background, which established that "mystical experiences are rare, even for mystics," we are to believe that Beauregard placed 15 Carmelite nuns into his fMRI and all attained mystical experiences that became grist for his scanner. "The fifteen nuns were scanned while they recalled and relived their most significant mystical experience (mystical condition) as well as their most intense state of union with another human (control condition) ever felt as members of the Carmelite order" (p. 268). Beauregard expressed confidence that the nuns had indeed attained mystical union by means of this procedure. "During the qualitative interviews at the end of the experiment, the nuns said that they had felt the presence of God and his unconditional and infinite love as well as plenitude and peace." During a subsequent study entailing EEG rather than fMRI, "several nuns mentioned that during the mystical condition they felt the presence of God, his unconditional and infinite love, and plenitude and peace. The also felt a surrendering to God." He concluded, with confidence that seems unwarranted given the above observations regarding the scarcity of true mystical union, "In other words we had succeeded in measuring brain activity of the nuns while they went on to an actual mystical state."

If Mother Teresa were still here, she'd be upset.

Own Goals

Most damaging to the aims of this book are the "own goals" that Beauregard and O'Leary inadvertently score. Indeed, they repeatedly score "own goals" with respect to the central, dualistic thesis of the book: that mind and brain differ, and that mind controls and modifies brain. Beauregard and O'Leary cite the example of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). "My friend an colleague Jeffrey Schwartz, a nonmaterialist UCLA neuropsychiatrist, started working with OCD sufferers in the 1980s because he sensed that OCD was a clear case of an intact mind troubled by a malfunctioning brain." Schwartz determined by means of scans the cortical and subcortical brain circuitry that appears to underlie OCD, and devised a "mindfulness" treatment protocol that draws upon cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy to treat the disorder. When treatment succeeded, "he was not simply getting patients to change their opinions, but rather to actually change their brains. He wanted them to substitute a useful neural circuit for a useless this therapy, the patient is entirely in control. Both the existence and the role of the mind as independent of the brain are accepted; indeed, that is the basis of the therapy's success" (p. 130). Further neuroimaging disclosed areas of patients' brains that displayed modified activity following treatment.

The problem with all this is that the imaging in fact disclosed something quite other than minds operating independently of brains. By means of imaging, "Schwartz noted that the most recent (and thus most sophisticated) prefrontal parts of the human brain, in evolutionary terms, are almost entirely unaffected by OCD. That is why patients perceive compulsions as alien. They are alien to the most characteristically human parts of the brain. To the extend that the patient's reasoning power and sense of identity remain largely intact, they can actively cooperate with their therapy" (p. 128).

There you have it. Reasoning power and sense of identity are hosted by recently evolved prefrontal areas of the human brain, those areas that render us most characteristically human. We know that the human brain is organized hierarchically, with loops of regulation culminating in highly abstract frontal modeling and monitoring of self relative to one's physical and social environment and related goals, and we know that prefrontal areas of the brain are crucial to these high level representational and planning activities. Schwartz's imaging again confirms this view. The upshot of this research is not that a mind independent of brain monitors and modifies that brain; rather, this imaging confirms once again that the brain regulates and modifies itself by means of these neurally instantiated high level representations of self. Own goal. Similar own goals are evident in Beauregard's description of his scans of subjects asked to "down regulate" emotions, sexual arousal, etc., all of which demonstrate the marshaling of highly specific frontal areas to accomplish the tasks that Beauregard insists upon interpreting as mind acting upon brain. And, because we note that the cortical areas that host these crucially human functions are recently evolved, *some version of evolutionary psychology must in fact be correct*, Beauregard and O'Leary's repeated dismissals of this new discipline notwithstanding.

Indeed, the same may be said about the scans of Carmelite nuns who claimed mystical union while within Beauregard's fMRI scanner. Beauregard is eager to refute the hypothesis that RSMEs are explained by seizure-like activity in the temporal lobes of the mystics. Rather, "The results of the two studies, taken together...dispose of the notion that there is a God spot in the temporal lobes of the brain that can somehow 'explain' RSMEs. The results of our fMRI and QEEG studies suggest that RSMEs are neurologically instantiated by different brain regions involve in a variety of functions, such as self-consciousness, emotion, body representation, visual and motor imagery, and spiritual perception. This conclusion correlates well with subjects' descriptions of RSMEs as complex and multidimensional (p. 274).

It is not entirely clear to me why a highly unique pattern of activation of many brain components is more appealing to Beauregard than a single "God spot." But never mind. Were I to assert that mystical states of consciousness were grounded in brain states, because I believe that all forms of phenomenal, experiential, and representational consciousness are somehow ultimately instantiated in brain tissue, Beauregard's images are exactly the result I would expect. Indeed, ALL of the results of ALL of these studies demonstrate nothing less than the thoroughly neurobiological bases of these experiences. It doesn't follow from that conclusion that there are no "selves," no "you" enabled by these exquisitely organized tissues. But what does follow is that that "we are spirits made of bodies," and that our bodies and brains display sophistication and subtlety sufficient to host even our most complex and ineffable experiences.

But it gets a bit worse for Beauregard and his scanning nuns. Above I quote him denying the existence of a temporally based "God spot," and instead pointing to findings that demonstrate the number and complexity of the brain structures and interactions that accompany these (so-called) mystical experiences. Yet on the page 273, in a "The View from Neuroscience" sidebar, the areas seen to be active during mystical union are listed and their putative functions described. While other brain areas are thought to account for phenomenal experiences such as changes in the emotional state of the subjects, visual imagery, and the spatial perception of self, "We hypothesized that the right MTC [right middle temporal cortex] was related to the subjective impression of contacting a spiritual reality." Should this be filed under "contradictions," or "own goals?" Never mind.

Promissory Mentalism

Throughout "The Spiritual Brain" we hear complaints about what Karl Popper called "promissory materialism," reflecting the (still correct) assertion that many materialistic IOUs regarding the nature of things, including human consciousness, have yet to be cashed. But the mentalism advocated by Beauregard and O'Leary is worse: if materialism has yet to make good on promissory notes, the mentalism advocated by Beauregard is pure counterfeit currency, printed in his basement. The most egregious example of such a counterfeit explanation is his "Psychoneural Translation Hypothesis." This is presented on pages 150-151:

"I posit that the mind (the psychological world, the first-person perspective) and the brain (which is part of the so-called "material" world, the third-person perspective) represent two epistemologically different domains that can interact because they are complementary aspects of the same transcendental reality.

"The PTH recognizes that mental processes (e.g., volitions, goals, emotions, desires, beliefs) are neurally instantiated in the brain, but it argues that these mental processes cannot be reduced to and are not identical with neuroelectric and neurochemical processes. Indeed, mental processes - which cannot be localized in the brain - cannot be eliminated....according to the PTH, conscious and unconscious mental processes are automatically translated into neural processes at the various levels of brain organization (biophysical, molecular, chemical, neural networks). In turn, the resulting neural processes are further translated into processes and events in other physiological systems, such as the immune or endocrine system."

That's it. No posited mechanism, location, or other pathetic levels of detail are offered regarding this heretofore undiscovered, yet pervasive and metaphysically powerful mechanism. Indeed, one wonders if it is implemented in the mind, or in the brain. Nor does this astonishing, multilevel translation mechanism receive another mention in the book. The PTH remains completely empty. I looked around a bit; Beauregard's presentation of his PTH in the journal Progress in Neurobiology (Mind does really matter: Evidence from neuroimaging studies of emotional self-regulation, psychotherapy, and placebo effect, 2007, issue 81) is equally empty.

A Single Wise Moment

The wisest passage found in "The Spiritual Brain" is found within a sidebar presented on page 112:

"We must keep in mind that the whole human person, not merely a part of a brain, thinks, feels, or believes. Indeed, the human person cannot be redued to brain processes and events, and it is difficult to understand a whole human person without understanding the sociocultural context in which the person lives."

Indeed. Many of the phenomena that Beauregard and O'Leary assert demand the resuscitation of an unworkable dualism - a view of "minds" as wholly independent of brains - don't really call for such a drastic solution. Rather, they need to be seen as embedded in and dependent upon the biological and sociocultural contexts within which they arise. Had Beauregard and O'Leary heeded their own words in this respect, they might have written a better book.
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on November 13, 2007
I believe this review to be a full, thorough, and detailed refutation of The Spiritual Brain:

Let me start with the evidence, so none may claim that I argue solely on anti-spiritualist grounds. To be sure, the so-called "evidence" leaves one wanting. In fact, I'm entirely confident in declaring that there is no real evidence at all, and absolutely no new ideas presented in The Spiritual Brain. The Spiritual Brain could have been condensed considerably, but is bulked with quotations from, and attempted refutations of, real scientists, apparently aimed at instilling sufficient doubt in the reader before the absence of evidence is laid bare. Please, if I've missed any of the "evidence" hidden somewhere among the anti-materialist pejoratives , by all means let me know:

1) Mystical Experiences Exist and Have Changed Lives.
Author Mario Beauregard ran a study on Carmelite nuns, who "live a life of silent prayer". These nuns report that they enter a "mystical state" that they find difficult to describe.
"Several nuns mentioned that during the mystical condition, they felt the presence of God, his unconditional and infinite love, and plentitude and peace. They also felt a surrendering to God."(p. 274)
This hardly flies in the face of conventional science, and is precisely what any scientist might expect of a Christian sect of meditators attempting communion with God. Meditators of another religion would surely interpret their experience in their own spiritual frame-work. The authors mention Buddhist meditators, but fail to give an account of their interpretation of the Religious Experience: "The scope of the present book does not permit a wide-ranging assessment of all types of contemplative states, so we will consider only the study of the Franciscan nuns." Perhaps it is convenient that the nuns' religious framework apparently matches that of the authors'.
In fact, neuroscientists don't shy away from the study of mystical experiences, nor would most deny that these experiences do have the ability to change lives. But these experiments provide no evidence for the existence of the soul or an outer "spiritual reality". It only indicates that there is an altered state of consciousness perceived as a spiritual reality. Even Beauregard's own research admits that the mystical experience is directly correlated with an altered state of mind (p.272). Because the Franciscan nuns interpret this as a communion with God doesn't mean that we should accept this uncritically.
There is a certain disorder that sometimes arises in stroke victims, in which they are capable of recognizing faces, but feel that the person has been replaced with an imposter. Would Beauregard have us believe that this is because exact human replica imposters delight in annoying perceptive stroke victims, or would he see the unique conditions of the brain as having manufactured this perception? The former would be just as scientifically valid as his assertion that spiritual experiences are provoked by a spiritual world.
The authors, to their credit, actually do admit that there is no proof of a spirit world to be gleaned from the mystical experience: "Do our findings prove that mystics contact a power outside themselves? No, because there is no way to prove or disprove that from one side only." (p.276) While refreshing to the skeptic, general readers may find this quote a bit astonishing, and quite contradictory to the rest of the text. Allow me to repeat: The AUTHORS ADMIT THAT THERE IS NO PROOF OF A SPIRIT WORLD TO BE GLEANED FROM THE MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE. Research of the mystical experience as experienced by the Carmelite nuns was the only original data provided in this book, and it admittedly proves nothing. The authors often fall back on the Science-Can't-Disprove-It argument, which is the weakest form of argument.
Beauregard can't disprove that spiritual experiences aren't caused by... ME... if I were to claim that I will them to happen. Nobody can disprove that there is a speck of dust on Mars shaped exactly like my head with "Skeptic" written across its brow. In short, there are an infinite number of theories that can't be disproved. It is the job of a real scientist to offer proof, and the duty of those committed to truth to demand it.
The authors claim that science provides no explanation as to what causes a mystical experience, and assert that the experience is perceived because something very real is causing it from a spiritual realm. Curiously absent from this book is a recent study involving the inducement of mystical experiences by means a psychoactive drug, psilocybin (the active component in "magic" mushrooms). The psilocybin study, performed at Johns Hopkins University under neuroscientist Roland Griffiths, showed that participants generally had mystical experiences that seem indistinguishable from those described in The Spiritual Brain - experiences that many participants deemed "among the most important" of their lives. It may disappoint some readers to know that these participants were of no particular religious background, thus proving that if God is still somehow responsible for providing the experience, He apparently shows no preference for one religion over another, or for religious people in general. Any heathen can chew a mushroom. If mystical experiences induced by drugs (of which there is over 50 years of research on the topic) are somehow to be distinguished from mystical experiences on a neurological level as separate from those induced "naturally" by prayer or contemplation, Beauregard has to justify this distinction.

2) Placebo Effect.
For reasons unclear, the book references the well-known placebo effect as some type of evidence for the soul. As is typical of the book, the authors choose to rebut science rather than present a cogent justification for their faith-based propositions: "...materialist accounts of placebo effect are often incoherent. For example, it may be described as the way in which 'the brain manipulates itself'. As we have seen, the placebo effect is actually triggered by the patient's mental state." (p. 148) The book goes on to offer the authors' hope that stem cell research will prove fruitless:
"A clear understanding of the placebo effect could... obviate some current controversies. For example, the ethical issues surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells in treating Parkinson's disease might be easier resolved if placebo effect accounts for most of their assumed value." (p. 149) Really? When researchers at Harvard recently cured monkeys of extreme Parkinson's by means of intracranial stem cell injection, were the monkeys responding to their expectations when they regained functions? Were they cured by placebo?
To me, this cruel hope, expressed by the authors, that stem cell research won't cure neuro-degenerative disorders, is deranged, inhuman, and utterly deplorable. But, of course, I see stem cells as stem cells - amorphous, devoid thought or nervous system. Cells. The authors probably believe that stem cells contain souls, even though plenty of philosophical problems arise from this view (for instance, does the soul split in two when an embryo divides and becomes twins?) So precious is the idea of the soul, that Beauregard and O'Leary would rather see afflicted living humans suffer rather than have to consider a reality-based framework.
The overall message in this bizarre placebo digression seems to be, "faith matters". Placebo effect has been studied at great length in more than a few coherent articles. If the authors are implying that placebo is somehow of spiritual origin, it may pain them to note that atheists benefit from placebo no less than any other group.

3) Near Death Experiences.
In citing Near Death and Out-of-Body Experiences as evidence for the soul, the authors incredibly fail (again!) to make mention of certain experiments that seem to contradict their conclusions. One such experiment involved subjects whose brains were electrically stimulated in a particular region. These subjects experienced full blown Out-of-Body perception (OBE). On her blog, author O'Leary acknowledges this phenomena only after having received several letters bringing this to her attention. The real question is: How did this data fail to make it into the book? Could the authors have been uninformed enough to have missed it? Were they not perceptive enough to see the relevance? Did they ignore it because they did not like the implications? If Out-of-Body experiences can be electrically induced, where does this leave the idea that such experiences are caused by supernatural spiritual forces? Beauregard dismisses the electrically stimulated OBE as separate from a mystical OBE with circular logic: They're not real OBEs because they are electrically stimulated. Also: "With electrical stimulation, experiencers continue to perceive the environment from the visual perspective of the physical body; In spontaneous OBEs: the disembodied center of consciousness may move about independent of the physical body." As any neuroscientist would expect, there is no one part of the brain that can be labeled "Out-of-Body-Experience". Researchers inducing OBEs have only stimulated a region of the right temporal brain. Obviously, this controls some aspect of kinesthetic OBE. To suggest that this tells us nothing about naturally occurring OBEs is rather unbelievable. Suddenly, we now have a mere perception of OBE, which is to be distinguished from a "real" spiritual OBE. Sounds like Beauregard's really reaching. O'Leary is happy to report that induced OBEs in no way disprove the existence of the soul. Of course.
The Spiritual Brain makes much of Near Death Experiences (NDEs), and seem to feel satisfied that these provide proof of the existence of the soul. Here again they are dishonest about the research. Omitted is any mention of NDEs induced by Ketamine, or by use of g-force simulators, in subjects who are not in fact dead, or in serious risk of dying. Instead, the unscientific supporting "evidence" is anecdotal.

The Problem With "Spiritual" Science:

The trouble starts even before the Table of Contents, on the inside flap of the front cover. The first sentence of the synopsis asks, "Do religious experiences come from God, or are they merely the random firing of neurons in the brain?" Of course, the question is absurd. Nobody with even the most basic knowledge of neuroscience would claim that neurons fire entirely wild and at random. Nor does patterned neural activity imply anything supernatural. This is reminiscient of the equally misguided Creationist question: Was life designed, or did it all just happen to come together by Random Chance?
The book begins, not with any overview of its evidence of experimental protocol, but with an attack on what the authors refer to as "materialist science". According to the authors, an unwillingness to accept causes outside the physical world has crippled progress in the field of neuroscience. Good enough. One may be able to accept this argument if the authors then were to describe how science may look beyond the material world, and how it might benefit from accepting supernatural causes. What new experiments would naturally follow? How would this deepen our understanding of brain function, and how might it help us cure neurological dysfunctions in the future? The authors explain, "Nonmaterialist science is not compelled to reject, deny, explain away, or treat as problems all evidence that defies materialism." Good science, in fact, never rejects or denies evidence, and the authors never supply a case in which this has been done. By "explain away", I'm guessing that the authors object specifically to explanations that describe perceptual phenomena in non-spiritual terms. But these non-spiritual explanations also require evidential support and experimental confirmation before being considered factual, and scientists are striving toward this constantly.
The book makes the claim that "...materialism is stalled. It neither has any useful hypotheses for the human mind or spiritual experiences nor comes close to developing any." This claim is entirely false. Science has not at all shunned experiments toward an understanding of "psi effect" or spiritual experiences. Many good, rigourous scientific studies have explored these very phenomena. Oddly, The Spiritual Brain doesn't refute the data, it simply ignores it. My guess is that the authors have merely disliked the results...

Defining the Soul:

One would expect that a book that claims to give evidence for the existence of the "soul" would at least give the reader the benefit of defining "soul" at the very outset. Some may claim that we all know what is meant by "soul", and that the word needs no defining, but this certainly isn't true of neuroscience. The concept of a soul is at odds with the brain itself. Why - it has been asked - if there is some godly vapour that drives a living being, provides character, morality, and consciousness, would God have equipped us with burdensome, fragile, and expensive (in biological terms) organs such as brains? Where does the brain end and the soul begin? If the brain provides robotic function, and the soul provides "consciousness", what are we to make of cases of extreme character change due to neurological dysfuction or brain disorder - like the case of Phineas Gage?
Gage, for those unaware, was a railroad worker in the late 19th century who - in an explosive accident - survived a metal rod being driven up into his eye-socket, through the front of his brain, and out the other side of his skull again. Having been generally admired as a polite, hard-working, amiable fellow, friends of Gage were confounded to note that, following the accident, Gage's character took a turn for the worse. He became slovenly and vulgar, his actions irrational and rowdy. How did this brain injury so affect Gage's "soul", if the soul is the root of our consciousness? The Spiritual Brain offers no clue. Perhaps Beauregard and O'Leary managed to miss mention of Gage and the many other reported cases just like his? Not likely. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio wrote an entire book (Descartes' Error) linking logical ability to emotional rationality by exploring the case of Gage and similar modern cases. The Spiritual Brain cites Damasio briefly, only to paraphrase his opinion that complex connections similar to those that command language function in the brain may also "create our sense of the self." The book goes on to criticize this position: "But, in that case, are the sense of self and consciousness merely a buzz created by the activities of neurons? Or has materialist neuroscience essentially stalled, unable to progress further in the understanding of human consciousness because of the limitations of the materialist creed?"
"...merely a buzz created by the activities of neurons" is an obscene oversimplification of the intricate interactions of a hundred trillion interconnections. To refer to the deft processes of this magnitude as a "mere buzz" is similar to refering to your computer as a mechanical abacus. It's a cheap rhetorical ploy reducing brain function to its most basic element to imply that "materialist" neuroscience itself is just as basic and unsatisfactory. The authors may well ask, "Is the physical world made of a complex combination of elements, or merely a random collection of atoms?"
Cheap rhetorical ploys, omitted data, lack of evidence, lack of definition. The Spiritual Brain entirely fails as a work of non-fiction. As a work of fiction, I really can't recommend it either. Any way you look at The Spiritual Mind, the book is intellectually indefensible.
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on October 11, 2007
This book is hailed by religious believers, as it appears to support a dualistic view of the human mind. It is attacked by those who hold a purely materialistic view.

However, the reason why this book is horribly bad has nothing to do with philosophy. The book is bad because it presents misinformation, credulously accepts poor research, and occassionally bases arguments on mind-bogglingly stupid assertions (such as the claim that the nerve cell is made of 100,000 molecules on average; a statement of breathtaking ignorance; imagine someone publishing a book on human body, and starting with a claim that "an average adult human body contains approximately two ounces of bone" - how do you believe anything they say after that point?).

Again, this has nothing to do with materialism. If humans have souls, and if mind is indeed something separate from the brain, this book is still bad - its conclusion may or may not be true, but the "evidence" and "reasoning" it presents are distorted far outside the boundaries of truth.
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